London: Seven Years On

When I moved to London back in 2012, I never could have imagined that I would still be here, seven years later. It had not been my ambition to live here. As a teenager, I wanted to live in the North partly, I think, because I liked a lot of Northern bands, but mostly because I’d spent some time there and thought it seemed like a friendly part of the country. London, by contrast, always struck me as distinctly unfriendly. I grew up associating it with avaricious types, desperately trying to climb the rat pile of ambition, and as a place where excessive greed and deprivation exists side-by-side. If my girlfriend hadn’t found work there I probably would have stayed where I was, in Leeds. But having spent six months on the dole while living in a damp flat on the edge of the city I was only too happy to try to make a go of it somewhere else.

My first impression of London, upon moving there, was that it was just as I’d imagined: busy, trendy and bustling with obnoxious, pushy people. It took a couple of months before I discovered that, beyond the busy streets and hordes of people, there existed a quieter, more manageable London, rarely stumbled upon by tourists and newcomers. It was while exploring this side of the city that I gathered a sense of all the important events that had happened in London and all those figures throughout history who, like me, had called London home. I still feel slightly uneasy calling it home, even now, since despite living here for seven years, so much of London is still completely alien to me. But home it is, even if I sometimes to struggle to explain why I live here to those who don’t. Almost everything people say about London, good and bad, is true. It can be grimy and ugly in places, though few cities besides London boast such an extravagance of tree-lined streets, palatial parks, historic buildings and attractive riverside scenery. That the city is become increasingly glutted with towering monuments of corporate greed and ego, the architectural equivalent of a penis substitute, is upsetting, but most of the time it doesn’t detract from all that is good in London—places to eat, old buildings, museums, pubs.

I rarely have cause to spend money, though in the last seven years I have spent a lot of it in London pubs, they being among the most expensive in the country. It is no exaggeration to say that I’ve got to know London largely by visiting its pubs, many of which are steeped in history: The George Inn in Southwark, a remarkable galleried coaching inn, typical of those that were once common; Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, a grade-II listed pub, hidden away behind St Ethelreda’s, the oldest Catholic church in London; Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, which having survived the fire of 1666 maintains the feel of an old fashioned ale house, complete with a sawdust-strewn floor and cave-like passages. London pubs are less friendly than those I frequented as a teenager in Bristol, or those I recall from when I was living in the North, but they’re not entirely without warmth and community. In The Coach and Horses, Soho, you’re never short of somebody to chat to, and the same goes for the Irish pubs near Kings Cross, particularly McGlynns, which is the antithesis of the trendy shabby chic pubs that have sprung up in the past decade or so.

It goes without saying that there is a lot of pretentious, fad nonsense in London. But such nonsense can be easily ignored and more often than not is, by the vast majority of Londoners. In fact, speaking as a distinctly untrendy person, I only ever hear about London’s latest fads from friends and family who live outside the city, but have read about gin palaces, cereal bars or whatever else in some flash Sunday supplement magazine. London, contrary to popular opinion, isn’t entirely overrun with hipsters and high-living yuppies. It’s a diverse city, full of shops and attractions that appeal to all manner of people, and that’s chiefly why I enjoy living here. There is always plenty to do and see, and the city’s big enough that, if something begins to irritate me, I can avoid it without too much difficulty.

This is broadly though not entirely true. An obvious, disheartening fact is that London, or in any case the things that make it an interesting place to live, is slowly being destroyed by greedy developers, who are transforming the city from a place where regular people to live into a showroom for the super rich. While a housing crisis persists, sparsely furnished, so-called luxury flats all over London stand empty, having been sold to investors who are eager to expand their property portfolios; small businesses are being replaced by international chains; regular people are leaving the city, often not by choice, but because London has become too expensive. It’s not hard to see the damage being done: it can be seen everywhere, in the wealthiest and poorest areas of the city. And I’m sure that if I ever leave London it’ll be as a result of this overdevelopment—either because I can no longer afford to live here any more (highly likely, at this rate) or because London has become so sanitised that I don’t want to live here any more.

Even in the relatively short time I’ve spent here I have watched areas of London change considerably. I remember the first time I went to Soho feeling as if I had finally found my place in the city. The aforementioned Coach and Horses, The French House, Gerry’s Wines & Spirits, The Pillars of Hercules, The Algerian Coffee Stores, The Vintage Magazine Shop—I immediately warmed to these establishments, and for that matter to the surrounding area, which though thrillingly contemporary also felt firmly rooted in the past. There was, on the one hand, the retro glamour of Bar Italia and Ronnie Scots, and on the other the unpretentious charm of Italian restaurants and cheap cafes, such as the Stockpot. It felt unlike anywhere else in London. Yet it was London condensed into a single square mile: the good, the bad; the rich, the poor; the glamorous, the downright sleazy.

Now, whenever I go there, it still feels like the Soho I first visited, just not quite as exciting or interesting. The Stockpot has gone, as has The Vintage Magazine Shop and the original Ed’s Easy Diner. The place has become swankier and more upmarket and more expensive. And the demographic has shifted slightly, too: fewer flamboyant or eccentric characters, more generic trendies posing for selfies in front of pop-up clothing boutiques and fad eateries. But who am I to complain? As native Londoners are always telling me, London’s not what it used to be. The Soho of the ’60s and ’70s, a friend tells me, barely resembles the Soho of today. Back then, things were rundown and ramshackle. The pubs filled up early in the day with committed drinkers and down-and-outs with nowhere else to go. There were no chains then. There was a proper community in Soho—an odd one, but a community all the same.

London may well not be what it use to be, but I do like living here. To remind myself of this fact all I need do is take a clipper from the City, past the Southbank and the Houses of Parliament, past Chelsea and the Peace Pagoda, to Wandsworth; or walk through the quiet backstreets of Bank on a bright Sunday morning; or amble along Fleet Street late at night, when the office workers and barristers have all gone home; or on a clear day walk up the hill at Alexandra Palace and look down on the whole of London as if it were a toy town. Having lived here for seven years, I’m still not tired of London, and as long as I can get away with it I’d like to stay here.

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